Maid Elizabeth

(Part 1 from 5)

August 1936

Jack Reynolds wiped the sweat from his eyes and stepped back. The afternoon was hot and he had been hard at for hours, least ways, it felt like hours.
“What’re you doing?”
He started at the unexpected voice and turned. The owner of the voice was staring at him quizzically.
“Working on my boat. What does it look like?”
The girl said nothing but continued to stare. She moved closer and switched her gaze from the boat to Jack.
“ How come you’ve got a boat then?”
Jack snorted. “She’s a wreck. My Dad was goin’ to scrap her but he said if I could fix her I could have her. So I’m fixin’ her.”
“What sort of boat is it, I mean, she?”
“Three ton Bermudan Sloop, clinker built, pitch pine on oak with teak decks. Lovely job, not her fault she got wrecked.”
“So what’re you doing now, then?

Jack regarded her in silence for a moment. He wasn’t really used to talking to girls, spending all his spare time in the boatyard in the company of shipwrights and sail-makers. He reckoned she must be a couple of years younger than he was, which would make her about twelve and therefore in the ‘nuisance’ category. She was tall, nearly as tall as Jack himself, and skinny with long thin arms and legs. Her fairish hair was long and tangled by the stiff breeze that rattled the halyards of the moored boats and scattered white horses on the sparkling sea. She might be quite pretty one day, he decided.

“Well, the daft bugger who owned her managed to dismast her and she ran up on them rocks.” He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the headland. “I’m cutting out the planks that got stove in and goin’ to fit new ones. Might have to replace this here rib first.” He gestured into the gaping hole in the boat’s side. “Don’t know yet. I’ll have to ask me Dad, I ‘spect.” The girl nodded in solemn agreement.
“What’s she called?” She asked. Jack smiled. “Don’t rightly know, yet. She was called ‘Tiffin’. Just the sort o’ daft name a daft bugger would call a boat. I’ll think of something good, you wait ‘n’ see!” Again she nodded with apparent satisfaction.

“You on holiday, are you?” Jack said. For some reason he wanted the conversation to continue. She smiled and nodded. “Goin’ to shake your fool head off, you keep doin’ that.” But his smile took away any sting. He noticed her eyes were green; the colour of the sea on certain days when a storm is coming and the sky is troubled and grey. “I’m Jack Reynolds. This is my Dad’s yard. What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth. Most people call me Beth, though. You are lucky to live her all the time. We live in London. My Dad’s a Bank Manager.”
“Never been to London. What’s it like?”
“You’ve never been to London? How old are you?”
Jack bridled at the implied criticism. If he were honest, the furthest he had ever been was Plymouth. But he had sailed far and wide with the fishing boats and could navigate from here to Brittany. He could hand reef and steer and repair the clunky old diesel engines. He could patch a hole and caulk and make good sprung planking, but he had never been to his nation’s capital city.
“Never had no call to go to London,” he said. “Got everything I need here. An’ if London’s so great, why do all you Londoners come down here for the summer?”
She shrugged. “It’s lovely here, so peaceful. And you’ve got the sea and not the smelly old Thames. We come every August.” Jack said nothing but continued to glare at the girl who, as he saw it, had exposed some lack in him.

Beth looked at the boy. She had just started to notice boys in a different way. He was quite good-looking, she decided. She liked the way his hair curled, thick and dark over his ears. His skin was deeply tanned and smooth looking and he had bright blue eyes that still managed to look nice even when he was scowling at her.
“Can I help?” She said and was pleased when he looked surprised.
“S’pose you could help with the rubbin’ down,” he admitted and gave her a piece of rough sandpaper stretched over a block of scrap wood. “Easiest if you do it fore and aft, with the grain,” he said and demonstrated.

The afternoon passed swiftly and they found themselves comfortable in each other’s company. Neither was by nature especially talkative so they found no difficulty in the silences. Beth proved herself an adept pupil and it seemed to Jack that really listened to him when he was explaining something. At fourteen, he was not used to getting such wrapt attention. At six o’clock a whistle blew, the signal for the end of the day’s labour, but Jack kept working.

“Aren’t we going to stop, too?” She asked. Jack smiled. “We’re not on wages, girl. I got to do as much as I can durin’ the holiday. An’ I got to go fishing with my Uncle Bill next week so won’t get much done. You can stop now if you like, though.”
“I think I’d better. My parents will be wondering where I am. Are you going to be here tomorrow?”
“Afternoon. Got my chores in the morning.”
“Chores? What are chores?”
Jack stared her in utter disbelief. “Jobs what I got to do, course! Don’t you have no chores to do for your folk, then?” She shook her head. She felt awkward, sensing the gulf between their lives, the daughter of a Bank Manager and the son of a boat builder. “We’re on holiday,” she said lamely. Jack nodded as if this explanation was acceptable. “That’ll be it, then,” he said. “See you tomorrow?” He was surprised to discover how pleased he felt when she said yes.

The rest of the summer passed all too quickly for Jack. Beth met him each afternoon he went to the yard and proved such a quick learner he started to trust her with more complex tasks like stripping rigging blocks and cutting new thole pins for the boat’s tiny dinghy. Her parents had come to the yard once to see how she was spending her summer. Jack had stood tongue-tied as she explained what they had done and pointed out the remaining work. Her parents were like creatures from another world to Jack. ‘Big City Folk,’ his father had called them but had greeted them politely enough and chatted a bit with Beth’s Dad about the situation in Europe. It had come as a surprise, therefore, when Beth had announced she was leaving the next day. “Our time’s up, I’m afraid. Back home and then back to school.” Jack had nodded dumbly, bereft of words.

Still, he had put on his Sunday clothes and gone to the station to see her off. He was ill at ease as he stood on the platform. He wanted to be there but was desperately worried that any of the boys from the town would see him. His embarrassment was complete when she suddenly leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek. He mumbled something about seeing her next year and went even redder when her father had laughed something about ‘holiday romances’. He wasn’t too sure what one was but it didn’t sound like something he would like.

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